It seemed to mark a major turn in the assassination case of Martin Luther King Jr.: A judge declared Friday that test bullets recently fired from James Earl Ray’s rifle had marks different from the slug that killed the civil rights leader.
But a respected firearms expert who tested the gun for a House investigative committee in 1978 said he doesn’t believe the recent tests are any different from previous tests that were inconclusive.
“They can look at it from now until the year 2050, and it won’t change,” said George Wilson, a former president of the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners.
And a former FBI crime lab director said that the techniques to analyze firearms evidence haven’t changed significantly over the decades.
“I’d be skeptical of any report which implies they have come to any conclusion different from the early FBI work,” said John Hicks, who ran the FBI crime lab from 1989 to 1994, and was not involved in the FBI’s 1969 analysis of the King bullet.
The issue came in a Tennessee courtroom Friday when an expert hired by Ray’s defense attorneys testified that markings unlike any found on the bullet that killed King turned up on many bullets recently fired from Ray’s rifle. The gun is believed to have killed King on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.
Ray, 69, is serving a 99-year sentence in a Nashville, Tenn., prison. Ray confessed to the murder but recanted days later, saying he was only trying to avoid the death penalty. State and federal courts have upheld his guilty plea eight times.
Firearms expert Wilson said the single bullet that killed King had hit a bone and was “deformed and mutilated.” The death bullet, which broke into several pieces, did have similar markings to test bullets, but not enough for examiners to state definitively that this gun had killed King, he said. Thus, examiners for the 1978 House Select Committee on Assassinations, as well as previous FBI examiners nearly a decade before, ruled it inconclusive.
“You have had five, eight, 10 experts in the firearms field look at it since the shooting, and no one has called it,” Wilson said in a telephone interview. “It’s just been inconclusive. You can’t say yes, and you can’t say no.”
The recent tests were conducted by a team of firearms investigators led by University of Rhode Island criminologist Robert Hathaway. The team was working for Ray’s defense attorneys who hope the tests will help their client win a new trial.
In recent months, the King family has added to the controversy. Dexter King surprised some of his father’s friends when he declared on national television recently that his family believes Ray was “innocent” in the assassination and that President Lyndon Johnson must have been part of a government plot to kill King. The younger King even visited Ray in prison, where he is dying of liver cancer.
According to Shelby County Judge Joe Brown, “a comparison revealed that the gross and unique characteristic signature left on 12 test bullets by the James Earl Ray rifle was not present on the death bullet.”
The new evidence prompted Brown to order both Ray’s lawyers and Tennessee prosecutors to ask the FBI to unseal the test results and let experts compare them to the latest examination of the rifle. An FBI spokesman said it was unclear how the bureau would respond. Notes from the FBI tests conducted in 1969 are being sealed for 50 years.
Rhode Island criminologist Hathaway also said that “bubbling” on the test bullets was hindering analysis of the markings, and that cleaning the gun barrel could help.
Hicks, the former FBI lab director, said the procedures to analyze firearms evidence were the same in the late 1960s as they are today. Basically, examiners use high-powered microscopes to simultaneously compare test and evidence specimens.
“That was the practice then, and that’s the current practice and that is internationally the way it is done,” Hicks said.
In the mid-1970s, the FBI introduced scanning electron-microscopes, he said, which allowed greater magnifications. But he said he couldn’t think of many times when the FBI found it necessary to use that sophisticated microscope on a bullet because regular microscopes were sufficient.
Hicks said he did not know much about the condition of the bullet used to kill King, but he speculated that the original FBI tests were inconclusive either because the bullet was too fragmented or because it had been distorted upon impact.
“Those same conditions would apply regardless of what additional techniques you use to observe the features,” Hicks said. “I believe the original tests were done accurately, based on my knowledge of how the work was done.”